Eminent Petreans

Over the centuries numerous Petreans, whether undergraduates, graduates or Fellows, have achieved eminence in their fields and made significant contributions to the intellectual, social, artistic and sporting life of the nation and indeed the world.

Eminent Petreans include the following:

  • Charles Babbage - Originated the concept of a programmable computer
  • Richard Baker - Broadcaster
  • Cardinal Beaufort - Lord Chancellor
  • William Brewster - Pilgrim Father
  • Thomas Campion - Poet and composer
  • Henry Cavendish - Discovered hydrogen and measured the Earth’s density
  • Sir Christopher Cockerell - Inventor of the hovercraft
  • Stephanie Cook - Olympic gold medallist and world champion pentathlete
  • Richard Crashaw - Poet
  • Sir James Dewar - Inventor of the thermos flask and cordite
  • Lord Ellenborough - Lord Chief Justice
  • Sir Richard Eyre - Theatre, film and television director
  • Tibor Fischer - Novelist 
  • Sir Samuel Garth - Physician and poet
  • The Duke of Grafton - Prime Minister 1768-1770
  • Thomas Gray - Poet
  • Colin Greenwood - Bass player of Radiohead
  • Lord Howard - Leader of the Conservative Party 2003-2005
  • Lord Kelvin - Developed the Kelvin scale of temperature measurement
  • John Kendrew - Nobel Prize for determining the first atomic structures of proteins using X-ray crystallography.
  • Sir Aaron Klug - Nobel Prize for developments in crystallographic electron microscopy
  • Michael Levitt - Nobel prize for developing multiscale models for complex medical systems
  • Archer Martin - Nobel Prize for developing partition chromatography
  • James Mason - Film star
  • Simon McBurney - Actor and theatre director 
  • Sam Mendes - Film and stage director
  • David Mitchell - Comedian
  • Andrew Perne - Master and benefactor
  • Max Perutz - Nobel Prize for determining the structure of haemoproteins
  • Michael Portillo - Politician and broadcaster
  • Lord Stern - Economist
  • John Whitgift - Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle - Developed jet propulsion
  • Sir Peregrine Worsthorne - Journalist

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Babbage is credited with originating the concept of a programmable computer. Babbage sought a method by which mathematical tables could be calculated mechanically, removing the high rate of human error. He began in 1822 with work on his first difference engine, so-called because of the mathematical principle on which it was based, the method of calculating finite differences. This was composed of around 24,000 parts, weighed fifteen tons, and stood eight feet high. Although he received ample funding for the project, the machine was never completed. He later designed an improved version, Difference Engine No.2, which was not constructed until 1989-1991, using Babbage’s plans and C19th manufacturing tolerances. It performed its first calculation at the London Science Museum returning results to 31 digits, far more than the average pocket calculator. Babbage also designed a related but more complex machine called the analytical engine which could be programmed using punch cards. Although Babbage’s machines were mechanical and unwieldy, their basic architecture was very similar to that of a modern computer.

Cardinal Beaufort (c.1375-1447)

Henry Beaufort was born in Anjou, the second son of John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford, and educated for a career in the Church. He became Bishop of Lincoln in 1398 and when his half-brother deposed King Richard II and took the throne as Henry IV, he made Bishop Beaufort Lord Chancellor. Beaufort resigned that position in 1405 following his appointment as Bishop of Winchester, but served as Lord Chancellor on two subsequent occasions, under Henry V and Henry VI. In 1415 Beaufort was involved in the preparations for the Agincourt expedition and announced news of the victory at St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1427 the Pope made Beaufort a Cardinal and Legate, designating him leader of the crusade against the Hussites of Bohemia. In 1431 he presided at the trial and burning of Joan of Arc and crowned Henry VI in Paris. Statesman, diplomat and mainstay of the house of Lancaster, Beaufort held episcopal office for almost fifty years and was the wealthiest English prelate of the late middle ages.

William Brewster (c.1566-1644)

In 1620, accompanied by his wife and sons, William Brewster joined the first group of settlers aboard the Mayflower on the voyage to North America. Landing at what was to become the Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts, Brewster was the senior elder and an advisor to Governor William Bradford. As the only university-educated member of the colony, Brewster also acted as the community’s religious leader until a pastor arrived in 1629. He continued to preach irregularly thereafter until his death in 1644.

Thomas Campion (1567-1620)

Thomas Campion was first published as a poet in 1591 with at least one of his works appearing in an edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. Campion’s first major work Poemata was published in 1595 and he wrote a number of other poems including the anti-Jesuit polemic ‘On the Gunpowder Plot’, as well as a book on poetry, Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602), in which he criticises the practice of rhyming in poetry. Campion wrote over one hundred lute songs in the Bookes of Ayres, with the first collection (co-written with Philip Rosseter) appearing in 1601 and four more following through the 1610s. The Songs of Mourning: Bewailing the Untimely Death of Prince Henry (1613) were set to music by John Coprario. He also wrote a number of masques and published a book on counterpoint, A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counterpoint By a Most Familiar and Infallible Rule.

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810)

Henry Cavendish is considered to be one of the so-called pneumatic chemists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and exercised a major public role in the sciences of later Georgian Britain. By combining metals with strong acids, Cavendish made hydrogen gas which he isolated and studied. Although others, such as Robert Boyle, had prepared hydrogen gas earlier, Cavendish is usually given the credit for recognising its elemental nature. Cavendish also accurately determined the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and is known for the Cavendish experiment, the first to measure the force of gravity between masses in a laboratory and produce an accurate value for the Earth’s density, as well as early research into electricity.

Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999)

Cockerell’s early career was spent with Marconi where he developed radically new radio communication and navigation equipment for both military and civil aircraft. Arguably his greatest invention, the hovercraft, grew out of the work he began in the early 1950s at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft. He tested his theory - that the power required by motor boats could be significantly reduced through introducing air between the hull and the water - using a hair-dryer and tin cans and found his working hypothesis to have potential. By 1955, he had built a working model from balsa wood and had taken out his first patent. In 1959, he launched a prototype craft called the ‘SRN1’, capable of carrying four men at a speed of 28 miles per hour, and it made a successful crossing of the English Channel between Dover and Calais on 25 July. Cockerell was knighted in 1969 for services to engineering.

Richard Crashaw (c.1613-1648)

Richard Crashaw, styled “the divine”, was a writer of both religious and secular verse and part of the C17th Metaphysical School of poets. Coming up to Cambridge in 1631, Crashaw rapidly emerged as one of the University’s finest neo-Latin poets with Cambridge University Press publishing his Epigrammata sacrorum liber in 1634. His devotional poetry, for which he is best remembered, has an exuberant, often ecstatic quality and is marked by vivid imagery. Crashaw excelled in all manner of graceful accomplishments and his skill in music, painting and engraving was no less admired in his lifetime than his poetry. He died in exile near Rome in 1648, having converted to Roman Catholicism. His poem “Lo, the Full and Final Sacrifice” was later set to music by the composer Gerald Finzi.

Sir James Dewar (1842-1923)

In 1875, Scottish chemist and physicist James Dewar was elected Jacksonian Professor of Natural Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge and subsequently Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution. He is probably best-known today for his invention of the vacuum-jacketed Dewar storage flask, which he used in conjunction with extensive research into the liquefaction of the so-called permanent gases and his explorations of the properties of matter at very low temperature. He was also particularly interested in atomic and molecular spectroscopy, working in those fields for more than 25 years.

Lord Ellenborough (1750-1818)

Educated at Charterhouse and Peterhouse, Edward Law was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1769. By 1775 he had successfully established himself as a special pleader and five years later was called to the bar on the same day as William Pitt. Law rapidly acquired a large practice and in 1787 was made a King’s Counsel. In the same year he was retained as counsel to Warren Hastings, in whose successful defence he was to make his name. A succession of other high profile legal cases paved the way to his appointment as Attorney General in 1801 and in the following year he was appointed Lord Chief Justice and raised to the peerage. Ellenborough involved himself in many of the most contentious political issues of his day; he expressed his strong opposition to the political emancipation of Roman Catholics in 1805, and the following year he supported the Slave Importation Restriction Bill. He repeatedly opposed attempts to reform the criminal code in respect of capital offences.

Sir Samuel Garth (1661-1719)

Samuel Garth took his M.D. in 1691 and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians in the following year, soon acquiring a large practice in London. He was a zealous Whig, the friend of Addison and, though of different political views, of Pope, and a member of the Kit-Cat Club. In 1697 he delivered the Harveian Oration, endorsing a scheme for providing a dispensary for the relief of the sick poor. In 1699 he published a mock-heroic poem, The Dispensary, which had an instant success and in which he ridiculed greedy apothecaries and their allies among the physicians. He is also remembered as the author of Claremont, a descriptive poem; he translated the Life of Otho in the fifth volume of Dryden's Plutarch, and also edited a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, to which Addison, Pope and others contributed. His intervention ensured an honourable burial for John Dryden when the latter died destitute in 1700, and he pronounced a eulogy at his funeral in Westminster Abbey. He ended his career as physician-in-ordinary to King George I, who knighted him in 1714, and physician-in-general to the army.

The Duke of Grafton (1735-1811)

In 1765, Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton was appointed a Privy Counsellor; then, following discussions with William Pitt the Elder, he was appointed Northern Secretary in Lord Rockingham’s first government. However, he resigned the following year and Pitt (becoming Lord Chatham) formed a ministry in which Grafton was First Lord of the Treasury but not Prime Minister. Chatham’s illness, in the first half of 1767, resulted in Grafton becoming the Government’s effective leader - he became Prime Minister in 1768, but political differences and the attacks of ‘Junius’ led to his resignation in January 1770. Also in 1768, Grafton was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University. He was Lord Privy Seal in Lord North’s ministry (1771) but resigned in 1775, being in favour of conciliatory action towards the American colonists.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Thomas Gray was the fifth of twelve children and the only child to survive infancy. He was educated at Eton College and recalled his schooldays as a time of great happiness, as is evident in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. Gray went up to Peterhouse in 1734, supposedly intended for the law, but in fact he spent his time as an undergraduate reading classical and modern literature and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord for relaxation. In 1739 he accompanied his old school-friend Horace Walpole on his grand tour, probably at Walpole’s expense. In 1742 he returned to Cambridge and became a Fellow first of Peterhouse and later of Pembroke College. Although Gray’s collected works published during his lifetime amount to fewer than 1,000 lines, he is regarded as the predominant poetic figure of the mid-C18th. It is believed that Gray wrote his masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire in 1750. The poem was a literary sensation when published the following year and has made a lasting contribution to English literature. In 1757 he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused and in 1768 he became Regius Professor of Modern History. Gray died in 1771 and was buried in the churchyard at Stoke Poges.

Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

William Thomson, an Ulster Scot, went up to Peterhouse in 1841 and graduated as second wrangler. However, he won the Smith’s Prize, sometimes regarded as a better test of originality than the tripos. While an undergraduate Thomson was active in sports, athletics and sculling, winning the Colquhoun Sculls in 1843. He was elected a Fellow of Peterhouse in 1845, but in 1846 he was appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. He did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and thermodynamics. Over the period 1855-1867, Thomson collaborated with Peter Guthrie Tait, a fellow Petrean, on a text book that unified the various branches of physical science under the common principle of energy. Published in 1867, the Treatise on Natural Philosophy did much to define the modern discipline of physics. He is widely known for developing the Kelvin scale of temperature measurement. He also had a later career as an electric telegraph engineer and inventor, being heavily involved in attempts to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable, finally completed in 1866. He was given the title Baron Kelvin in 1892, the first scientist to be thus honoured, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Sir Isaac Newton.

John Kendrew (1917-1997)

Born in Oxford, son of Wilford George Kendrew, reader in climatology in the University of Oxford and Evelyn May Graham Sandburg, art historian. In 1945 he approached Max Perutz in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge to work on a comparative protein crystallographic study of adult and foetal sheep haemoglobin, suggested by Joseph Barcroft, a respiratory physiologist. In 1947 he became a Fellow of Peterhouse, and the Medical Research Council (MRC) agreed to create a research unit for the study of the molecular structure of biological systems, under the direction of Sir Lawrence Bragg. Kendrew shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for chemistry with Max Perutz for determining the first atomic structures of proteins using X-ray crystallography. Their work was done at what is now the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Kendrew determined the structure of the protein myoglobin, which stores oxygen in muscle cells. He was President of St John's College, Oxford from 1981 to 1987 and an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse.

Sir Aaron Klug (b.1926)

Sir Aaron Klug is a Lithuanian-born British chemist and biophysicist, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1982 for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes. Between 1986 and 1996 he was Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and was knighted in 1988. He was elected President of the Royal Society and served from 1995 to 2000.

Michael Levitt (b.1947)

In 1968 Michael Levitt was elected to a Research Studentship in Molecular Biology to do his PhD at Peterhous before being elected to a Research Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College in 1970. At Peterhouse John Kendrew is on record as saying that Levitt was the best research student at his lab since Jim Watson. Levitt's work focuses on theoretical, computer-aided analysis of protein, DNA and RNA molecules which are responsible for life at its most fundamental level. Delineating the precise molecular structures of biological molecules is a necessary first step in understanding how they work. He was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Martin Karplus, of the University of Strasbourg and Harvard University, and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California ‘for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems’.

Archer Martin (1910-2002)

Archer Martin joined the Medical Research Council in 1948, was appointed Head of the Physical Chemistry Division of the National Institute for Medical Research in 1952 and was Chemical Consultant from 1956 to 1959. He specialised in biochemistry, in some aspects of vitamins E and B2, and in techniques that laid the foundation for chromatography. He developed partition chromatography whilst working on the separation of amino acids and later developed gas-liquid chromatography. Amongst other honours, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952.

James Mason (1909-1984)

James Mason came up to Peterhouse to study architecture, but after graduation he abandoned his career as an architect and took to the stage with the Old Vic. His successful transition to film made him one of Britain's major film stars of the 1940's. In 1948 he moved to Hollywood where his distinctive voice and frequent portrayals of men with a dark side brought him three Oscar nominations. In 1977, he was awarded the Golden Seal, Britain's highest film honour, in recognition of his many classic films including Odd Man Out, The Seventh Veil, A Star is Born, Georgy Girl, Lolita and The Shooting Party.

Andrew Perne (1519?-1589)

Andrew Perne became Master of Peterhouse in 1553. In the University he was Proctor and five times Vice-Chancellor. He took his degree at St John's College, of which he became a Fellow in 1540. In the same year he moved to Queens' College, where he was successively Bursar, Dean and Vice-President. His career in the Church during the reigns of Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth was firmly founded on what the DNB describes as 'his pliancy in matters of religion'. The substantial catalogue of his preferments culminated in the Deanship of Ely. In Cambridge he is remembered as a benefactor of the University, of Queens' College, and particularly of Peterhouse, to which he left the greater part of his library, reputed to be the finest private collection in England, together with the funds required to house it in what is now the westernmost portion of the present Perne Library.

Max Perutz (1914-2002)

In 1953, Austrian-born molecular biologist Max Perutz showed that the diffracted X-rays from protein crystals could be phased by comparing the patterns from crystals of the protein with and without heavy atoms attached. In 1959, he employed this method to determine the molecular structure of the protein haemoglobin, this work resulting in his sharing with John Kendrew the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. During the early 1950s, Perutz encouraged the research work of Francis Crick and James Watson in the Cavendish Laboratory as they were determining the structure of DNA. Perutz established the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge in 1962 and was its Chairman until 1979.

John Whitgift (c.1530-1604)

Having taken orders in 1560, John Whitgift became chaplain to Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely, who collated him to the rectory of Teversham, just outside Cambridge. In 1563 he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and in 1567 Regius Professor of Divinity. He became Master first of Pembroke and then of Trinity College, as well as Vice Chancellor of the University. Further appointments as Dean of Lincoln and Bishop of Worcester followed and in 1583 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Whitgift placed his stamp on the church of the Reformation and shared Queen Elizabeth’s hatred of Puritans. Although he wrote to Elizabeth remonstrating against the alienation of church property, Whitgift always retained her special confidence. In his policy against the Puritans and in his vigorous enforcement of the subscription test, he thoroughly carried out the Queen’s policy of religious uniformity. In 1595, in conjunction with the Bishop of London and other prelates, he drew up the Calvinist instrument known as the Lambeth Articles. Whitgift attended Elizabeth on her deathbed, and crowned King James I.

Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996)

Determined to be a pilot, Frank Whittle overcame his physical limitations to be accepted into the Royal Air Force where his abilities earned him a place on the officer training course at the RAF College, Cranwell. He excelled in his studies and became an accomplished pilot. While writing his thesis there he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the jet engine, taking out a patent on his design in 1930. Following his exceptional performance on the officers’ engineering course, Whittle was sent to Peterhouse by the RAF as a mature student. He graduated in 1936 with a First in the mechanical sciences tripos. Without Air Ministry support, he and two retired RAF servicemen had already formed Power Jets Ltd to build his engine with assistance from the firm of British Thomson-Houston. Despite limited funding, a prototype was created which first ran in 1937. Official interest was forthcoming following this success, with contracts being placed to develop further engines, culminating in an initial flight in 1941. Whittle retired from the RAF in 1948 and received a knighthood.